I live in Mayfair these days. I wander through expensive streets, past costly boutiques, exclusive restaurants, and grand houses where chandeliers glitter behind the windows. I walk past private members’ clubs, through elegant squares and along hidden mews. There are embassies, temples, schools and churches; casinos, cinemas, bookshops, tiny cafes and pubs thronging with white-collar workers. It’s elegantly Georgian here, but there’s also plenty of that red-brick ebullient Dutch – and French – inspired architecture of the monied Edwardians. That’s what my house is like – flamboyant, with curlicues on the crimson brick, ornate windows and original Regency railings. It boasts a beautiful library and a drawing room with graceful bay window that looks east towards Bond Street.
Except this is not actually my house at all. And I only live here when I’m in London. Here, at 2 Audley Square, is the University Women’s Club, a venerable institution that you’ve probably never heard of, though you may be aware of some of its past members: leading academics such as founder Gertrude Jackson and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson; writers such as Vera Brittain and Rosamund Lehmann; and many other female pioneers in medicine, science, the arts, and women’s rights and education. One of our early members chained herself to the White House railings in support of votes for women - twice.
I first visited the Club as a guest at a dinner, and was curious about its fine location and wonderful building but low profile. Later, when I left London to live in Dorset, I realised that the early departure of the last train home meant that having a place where I could stay the night was going to be important. Friends offered spare rooms but I knew that I needed privacy, flexibility and freedom to come and go. A club made sense. I looked at grand Pall Mall institutions, the glitzy arty hang outs in Soho, and the more sedate clubs of Chelsea and Kensington that are really private hotels. None were what I wanted, partly because they were so very expensive. Not just to join, but also to stay. If I needed to stay more than once or twice a month, it was going to be ruinous. I wanted to be comfortable, but I didn’t need luxury. When Lady Brenda Last in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust gets herself a London flat, she explains to her husband Tony that all she needs is a bed, a bath and a telephone. I needed a bed, a bath, and Wifi. I remembered the University Women’s Club.
I am so glad that I did. I found a place of character, charm and fascinating history. In this house, which once belonged to the Russell family, Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa came for the Russell ladies’ salons: Lady Flora was briefly engaged to her stepbrother. The club began in 1886, a female answer to the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall, aimed at the women now gaining an education. The criteria was to be University educated, medically trained or a contributor to women’s education, as many influential and wealthy ladies were not educated themselves but were helping to open doors for those coming after. The club provided something that women did not otherwise have: a place away from home where they were comfortable, safe, and stimulated by company, and where, most importantly, they did not require a male chaperone. The early club rules stated the men were not allowed, not because the male sex was despised, but because there was a lack of space. Dogs were also not allowed but, unlike the prohibition on men, this rule was frequently broken. The ladies’ club was not all tea, fondant fancies and smelling salts. It boasted a smoking room, a fine library with echoes of the Travellers’ Club, and sold whisky by the half inch.
Since moving to its fine Mayfair premises a hundred years ago in 1921, the club has known difficult times, not least because of the vast expense of being located in central London. It has survived wartime, recessions and other challenges. It carries on through creative thinking, and the love and generosity of its members, all of whom want to see it continue to offer a haven to women of all backgrounds, from all over the world. It has a family feel, the faded elegance and the slightly worn atmosphere of a much loved old institution. Nevertheless it is forward looking, always improving and aiming to offer its members a wide variety of activities (many now online) and events. There is a comfortable members room as well that amazing library, and the dining room offers a small but perfectly formed menu and excellent wine. It is smart without being stuffy, informal without being scruffy. There are no ridiculous rules on jacket, ties and the wearing of denim. It is peaceful.
I love my Mayfair home from home. The staff are kind and friendly and I’m getting to know them better each time I visit. The price of a room is very reasonable, and at weekends, even more reasonable. I don’t mind the top floors, where bathrooms are shared: it reminds me of school and university; but if I did, there are en suites downstairs. All members share in the freehold of the house and can use the beautiful reception rooms for parties twice a year, free of charge. The library is an inspiring place to sit and write.
Best of all, I feel an exuberant connection to those groundbreaking, vote-demanding, whisky drinking ladies who thought they deserved the education and freedoms of their male counterparts – and fought until they got them. The University Women’s Club is a testament to them, and to everything yet to be achieved.
Other clubs to join
The Lansdowne Club – Once the home of the Marquis of Lansdowne, this elegant building on Berkeley Square offers fine dining and a relaxed al fresco courtyard. The club has a fully equipped gym, swimming pool and, uniquely, a fencing salle d’armes. The mixed membership enjoy many artistic, cultural and sporting activities, and there are lots of socials for younger members too.
Little House, Mayfair – an offshoot of the hugely popular Soho House group, this branch doesn’t provide accommodation but is a place for eating, drinking and socialising in cosy elegance. It has a youthful media and arts profile, and membership usually includes entry to all the Soho House houses across London and beyond.
The Reform Club - with stunning premises on Pall Mall, this impressive club was once the headquarters of Liberalism. Now politically neutral and open to all, it has an informed and active membership and provides a busy social calendar - including lectures, black-tie dinners and chess - fine dining, comfortable rooms and a well-stocked cellar, all in grand, luxurious surroundings.
The Royal Automobile Club – with a fine clubhouse on Pall Mall and a country house in Surrey offering two golf courses, a swimming pool and extensive grounds with walks and play areas, this club is a great option for families. The London premises has classical interiors with a selection of bars and restaurants, as well as a pool and sports area; children over 7 years are permitted, under-7s at weekends.